Coal Plants Stoke Community Fears in the Philippines

In June 1985 there was a three-day “Welgang Bayan” (People’s Strike) against the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP). A year later, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in the Soviet Union, and a 620-megawatt facility was mothballed by President Corazon Aquino in its wake. Julito Velasco thought his fight to defend the environment and the health of his townmates in Morong, Bataan was long over.

Now 74 and a retired government employee, Velasco believes he still must continue his cause. He speaks in forums and joins protests to prevent the BNPP’s revival, first broached during the term of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and now by the Duterte administration.

But this time, his footprints are deep in another path to block a related toxic threat: coal-fired power plants and the government’s reliance on them as energy source.

“Like nuclear plants, coal plants are under the culture of death,” said Velasco, who works with the Coal-Free Bataan Movement (CFBM), echoing a perspective in the encyclical letter “Laudato Si’,” authored by Pope Francis in 2015.

While many countries are already pivoting away from fossil fuel use, countries in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, remain on the path of coal expansion. While burning coal is often touted as a cheap source of energy, its impacts on public health and the environment are dire.

Coal-fired power plants are among the major contributors of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. These emissions are the main driver of climate change, the impacts of which are already felt in extreme weather events and rising sea levels.

Scientists and environmental advocates alike have called for the urgent end to the use of coal and other fossil fuels, shifting instead to renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal power.

In Bataan province alone, six coal plants are operational.

Coal boom

Five more plants are being built or planned. These are the 44-MW RSFFB Phase 3 inside the Petron refinery in Limay; two plants with a combined capacity of 1,200 MW due in 2022 and 2023 by SMC/Mariveles Power Generation Corp. in Barangay Biaan, Mariveles; a 600-MW complex by Zest Power in Mariveles, and a 300-MW plant by SMC Pan Asia Ingrid 2 Power Corp. in Batangas province.

The presence of a Petron oil refinery in Limay in 1961 could have paved the way for companies engaged in fuel and power production to set up base in Bataan. A succession of laws allowed Limay, as well as Mariveles, to host such industries.

In 1968, President Ferdinand Marcos issued a proclamation, which reserved 418 hectares in Limay’s Lamao for industrial purposes. The land was carved out from the 621-ha Lamao Horticultural Experiment Station, which was also declared an industrial reservation. The next year, Marcos issued another proclamation expanding the Lamao industrial estate. Later on in 1976, a decree vested the administration and ownership of the estate to Philippine National Oil Co. and the area later became a petrochemical industrial zone.

In 2009, Mariveles benefited from an act that converted the Bataan Economic Zone into the Freeport Area of Bataan (FAB).

And in 2013, Congress passed another act expanding the use of the Lamao industrial estate for “businesses engaged in energy and energy-related infrastructure project and other gainful economic activities in addition to petrochemical and related industries.” The FAB would eventually include coverage beyond Mariveles.

Bane of coal

“Communities were evicted and fisherfolk were prohibited from fishing around plant sites. To give way to plant construction and expansion, old grown trees were cut and vegetable farms destroyed,” CFBM reported, summarizing the slew of problems arising from hosting coal plants.

The daily plant operation, it said, involves “waste spillage on the roads, emission of sickening ashes and odor, and constant troubling noise” that are “not monitored nor mitigated.”

Environmental degradation is also visible in the “decline of fish harvests from the bay, worsened poverty of the residents, water crisis and prevalence of respiratory illnesses and skin diseases associated with polluted environment,” the group said.

Gloria Capitan, a chapter president of CFBM’s Samahan ng Nagkakaisang Mamamayan ng Lucanin in Mariveles, was murdered on July 1, 2016. Months beforehand, she spoke against mining and open storage of coal in her village. Her killing is still unsolved.

In some instances, intimidation and threats might come from local officials, policemen or private emissaries, CFBM documentation shows.

Josie de Mesa, a catechist and a retired coordinator of the social action committee of the Diocese of Balanga in Bataan, frowned at the local governments’ attitude toward coal plant projects as “welcoming.”

“The residents are promised jobs. But they are hired only for short-term construction work, and that’s that,” she said.
De Mesa said the coal plants in Mariveles had also encroached on the ancestral lands of the Aeta people.

For CBFM spokesperson Alvin Pura, public consultations were a “farce” because the “people’s actual adverse experiences about living near coal plants are ignored or only a few are made to attend these [meetings].”

“We only get to know about the consultations through the website of the Environmental Management Bureau,” he said.

Masinloc’s experience

In neighboring Zambales province, the coal plant MPP, in the coastal town of Masinloc, about 250 kilometers northwest of the metropolitan Manila area, is considered one of the country’s oldest in the power industry. It was built despite vehement opposition from local communities, especially the village of Bani, due to fear that it would endanger the environment and their health.

MPP was built by the government in the late 1990s and operated by National Power Corp. (Napocor) through a US$2-million loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and Export-Import Bank of Japan. It occupies 11 ha of reclaimed land and its two units produce a combined capacity of 600 MW for consumers in Luzon.

While plant construction was under way, environmentalists, including farmers and fishermen, staged protest actions to voice fears that it would pollute the air and that its wastewater would contaminate the bay and kill local fisheries.

Because of the opposition, the project was delayed for four years, but it was finally pushed through in 1998 after the President Fidel V. Ramos used emergency powers. Close to 200 families or 1,000 individuals were displaced, according to the local government.

Validating their fears, environmentalists reported that the MPP has been spewing 385,000 tons of ash yearly and massive amounts of carbon dioxide, putting people’s health at grave risk.

In 2008, the plant was sold by Napocor to the US-based AES Corp. following the passage of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act. It was touted as the first privatized power plant in the country and made AES the largest foreign investor in the country’s power sector.

Before the acquisition, however, the MPP had already deteriorated. ADB reported at that the plant’s operating performance had “declined” since 2001, citing “inadequate maintenance and insufficient capital investments in anticipation of the planned privatization.”

AES said it had to spend more than US$1 billion to restore the facility and double its capacity by building another 300-MW unit by 2015 and a 300-MW plant by 2018.

In March 2018, the San Miguel group, through SMC Global Power Holdings, took full ownership of the MPP facility for $1.9 billion.

La Union’s fight

Though environmental activists failed to stop the operation of coal plants in Bataan and Zambales, they continue to rally communities against future mega coal-fired plants, such as the proposed 670-MW project in La Union province.

The plant of Global Luzon Energy Development Corp., a subsidiary of Global Business Power Corp. (GBPC) under the Metro Pacific Group, was built on a 41-ha property hugging the seaside villages of Carisquis and Nalvo Sur in Luna town.

“Risky, polluting and destructive” was how it was described by activist groups, including the community-based Koalisyon Isalbar ti Pintas ti La Union (“Coalition to Save the Beauty of La Union or CSBLU”), the Diocese of La Union, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines La Union Chapter, and associations of surfers and resort owners in the province.

The proposed plant site is near beach resorts, as well as the 3-km stretch of pebble shore where the 400-year-old Spanish “baluarte” (watchtower) is found, said Crisanto Palabay, the chair of CSBLU.

Currently, the project is stalled, but its proponents were already granted an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) by the government in 2018.

“The threat is still there,” said Palabay. “If the proponents decide to resume the project, they still can. We have to be vigilant.”

CSBLU and the other groups had repeatedly written to the DENR seeking to revoke the ECC for alleged violations committed by the proponents, including the absence of an environment impact study.

Luna officials supporting the coal plant, led by former mayor Victor Marvin Marron, claimed that a larger proportion of the town had stayed away from the protest activities and that the project would benefit Luna as part of the government’s massive infrastructure programs.

In an interview last week, Marron said that the during its construction, the plant would need at least 2,500 workers and that local residents would be given priority in the hiring. Once the plant starts operations, it will need 300 personnel, he said.

He also believed that measures would be implemented to ensure that the plant’s operations will not affect marine life and agriculture.

Palabay claimed that most of the residents who are pro-coal plant were cash aid beneficiaries under the government’s Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and were “pressured to support the plant.”

CSBLU observes that while the majority of the people living in villages around the project site support the project, “the views of [those in] ... other nearby villages that would be affected by nitrous dioxide from the plant were excluded or ignored.”

Outside Luna, at least three towns have banned coal-fired power plants and have stood up against the Luna project.

The surfing town of San Juan was the first in La Union to close its doors to coal plants on March 11, 2019, citing the need to preserve biodiversity and protect the health of residents.

Aringay followed suit the same month, basically adopting San Juan’s resolution. While Luna is 60 km away from the two towns, Aringay officials said they share the same coastline.

Another, San Gabriel passed a resolution on in 2019 opposing the project as a threat to its shared environment, livelihoods, and citizens’ well-being.

Quezon’s plant construction

In Quezon province, construction of a 1,200-MW coal-fired plant on an 80-ha site in the village of Villa Ibaba, Atimonan town, is ongoing amid protests from the Diocese of Lucena and environmentalist groups.

Critics argued that the facility would only add to environmental degradation already suffered by the province with its existing coal-fired plants.

Quezon is host to the 1,500-MW plant in Mauban town facing the Pacific Ocean and the 420-MW and 735-MW plants of TeaM Energy Corp. and Aboitiz Power Corp. in Pagbilao town facing the Tayabas Bay.

Quezon Gov. Danilo Suarez has maintained that “as long as the power plants in the province will be using ‘ultrasupercritical’ technology, there will be no problem.”

According to the Brussels-based nonprofit GreenFacts Initiative, an ultrasupercritical power plant operates at temperatures and pressures above the critical boiling point of water, where there is no difference between water gas and liquid water.

GreenFacts, whose mission is to provide non-experts with unbiased, factual content of complex scientific consensus reports on health and the environment, said this would make such power plants more efficient than conventional coal-fired plants.

The proponent of the Atimonan power plant boasted that it is set to use such technology in its operation. The government has also approved the project.

“Site preparations is ongoing,” an official of Atimonan One Energy (A1E), a subsidiary of Meralco Powergen Corp.’s, disclosed to the Inquirer.

The official, who asked not to be named for lack of authority to speak to the media, said the project currently employs more than 500 local residents doing a variety of jobs, such as building drainage around the site.

“We still need to build power plants utilizing high efficiency, low emissions technology to complement renewable power plants because we need stable and reliable supply of baseload power, especially now that we’re experiencing ‘yellow and red alerts’ during the summer months,” the official said.

Anti-coal groups are not about to give up. Jay Lim, project officer of Tanggol Kalikasan, a public interest law office based in the provincial capital of Lucena City, called on all national and local candidates in the next elections to declare their stand on coal-fired power plants.

“Yes to renewable energy, no to coal! And those who will not join us in the battle will invite the wrath of millions of anti-coal plant advocates on election day,” he warned.

Palawan crusade In Palawan province, a civil society group has relentlessly drummed up opposition to the construction of a 15-MW coal plant project in the southern town of Narra. The project of DMCI Power Corp. received a go-ahead signal from the DENR in June 2018 and the backing of local officials for its “clean” technology.

“There’s no such thing as clean coal. There are many other alternative sources of energy that we should instead pay attention to,” said Renz Tenorio, a convenor of the No To Coal Movement.

On July 31, around 70 people held an interfaith rally at a church in Narra to pray for the environment and call for the government’s “enlightenment” to heed their demands.

Recently suspended Mayor Gerandy Danao sent a video message of support to the crowd, saying the damage that a coal plant would wrought on the environment far outweighed the benefits it could provide to the community, and that local officials should instead give priority to farm-to-market roads, livelihood, food sufficiency and public health.

Danao attributed his suspension by the provincial government since September 2020 to his anti-coal position.

The town’s acting mayor, Crispin Lumba Jr., declined to comment on the protest and instead asked residents to let the project run its course, “subject to stringent environmental compliance.”

Under the ECC granted for the project, DMCI Power must set up a continuous emission monitoring system for real-time evaluation of air discharges. It should also carry out social development and management programs for affected communities in the village of Bato-Bato (formerly San Isidro), and ensure compliance with all existing environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Mindanao projects

In Mindanao, two coal-fired power plants were able to operate despite stiff opposition from communities—the  300-MW Therma South Inc. in Santa Cruz, Davao del Sur province, owned by Aboitiz Power; and the 552-MW GN Power Kauswagan in Kauswagan, Lanao del Norte province, owned by  GN Power Ltd.

The 250-MW Pulangi V hydropower plant along the Pulangi River in Bukidnon province has been stalled because it would submerge the villages of indigenous peoples, especially their burial grounds and farms.

Also facing resistance from Maranao indigenous communities is the planned 240-MW Agus 3 hydropower plant along the Agus River, from Saguiaran, Lanao del Sur province to Pantar and Baloi towns in Lanao del Norte. The project could inundate Maranao farms.

Finally, in Ozamis City, the 300-MW coal project of the Avesco group’s Ozamiz Power Generation Inc. has failed to take off because of widespread community opposition.

Jhesset O. Enano, Joanna Rose Aglibot, Yolanda Sotelo, Delfin Mallari Jr., Romar Miranda and Ryan Rosauro contributed to this report.

This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on 27 August 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: A woman in the Philippines wearing a mask to protest coal / Credit: Inquirer File Photo.

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